READING: from “As Much Truth as One Can Bear” by James Baldwin
We are the generation that must throw everything into the endeavor to remake America into what we say we want it to be. Without that endeavor, we will perish. However immoral or subversive this may sound to some, [we] must always remember that morality, if it is to remain or become morality, must be perpetually examined, cracked, changed, made new. [We] must remember, however powerful the many who would rather forget, that life is the only touchstone and that life is dangerous, and that without the joyful acceptance of this danger, there can never be any safety for anyone, ever, anywhere.
SERMON: Community of Prophecy
James Baldwin wrote the words in today’s Reading fifty-five years ago: so if your age is within about ten years either side of 70, you are the audience to whom he originally addressed them. I imagine, though, that he fully expected they’d be current again one day, as now they are.
That’s because he knew something about art and prophecy. To him they were the same thing. Now, I need to make myself clear, because the word “prophecy” means different things in different contexts. In particular, I want to distinguish the kind of prophecy I’m talking about this morning from another kind that a lot of people think of first, especially if they’re fans of Harry Potter and other literature of that genre. Lots of folks, when they hear the word “prophecy,” think of predicting the future. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was what you thought of when you first saw my sermon title.
Prophecy in that sense is fine in a story, but it runs into a problem in the realm of theological reflection. At least, it does in our tradition. We inherit a particular idea of prophecy from our Jewish and Christian roots. A prophet, in the Hebrew scriptures, is a religious figure with a particular role. The Temple had priests who administered its rituals, and prophets who proclaimed its values in public. People might go to a prophet for advice, as they did with Moses and the Judges. Or a prophet might go to the people, or to the king, and give advice unlooked-for. A prophet, in other words, helped people to listen to their own consciences, and spoke as the conscience of the community. Today we speak of churches and other religious bodies having that role of public conscience. But in the Hebrew scriptures it was individuals whom God called and inspired to speak truth and admonitions to the powerful.
The theological problem with the future-telling sort of prophet is that it violates our understanding of conscience and human freedom. When I was a boy, I had a board game called “Mousetrap.” Did any of you have that game?
If you did, you’ll remember what the fun of that game was: turning the crank on that complicated machine that was the mousetrap. On the Mousetrap game board, when one player’s mouse landed on a certain space on the board, the next player could turn that crank. And the crank turned a gear, that turned another gear, that moved a bar, that snapped back and hit a shoe, that kicked a bucket, that sent a ball bearing down a zig-zag chute and onto another, curvy chute, at the bottom of which it hit a pole which knocked a plastic ball down a plank and into a bathtub, and it went down the bathtub drain onto a see-saw, propelling a man standing on the other end of it into a tub, and the shock of his landing in the tub would cause the mousetrap cage to come skittering down a knobby pole to land on the space, trapping that player’s mouse. And I think that meant that that player was out. If you set up the game right, with the cage at just the right angle on top of that pole, it always came down and trapped the mouse. And that’s the theological problem with the future-telling kind of prophecy. If you believe you can tell the future, then you believe the universe works like that mousetrap. It might be a very complicated mechanism, but it is a mechanism and will always work the same way. Perhaps you can affect it a little, like making sure the cage is set just so on top of the pole. But beyond that, if you turn the crank, the same thing happens.
There’s a measure of truth to that view of the universe. Science wouldn’t work if the physical universe didn’t operate consistently. Math doesn’t work if you don’t follow its rules. But the universe isn’t made up just of physics and math. It’s also made up of stories, and perceptions, and interpretations, and impressions, and feelings, and all manner of things that don’t obey physical laws or mathematical rules. A scientific model, for that matter, is a story. We’ve been wrong before with our stories about how the physical universe works. We never know the universe exactly, not even in science. A scientific model is an approximation; the ones we decide to use are pretty darn good approximations. The field of history has moved more and more toward describing the past using models and approximations to underpin its narratives. That is, it’s moved that way in the academy, not – for example – on the Texas School Board. And not in the stories we cherish about our country and its origins and institutions and social structures and the like. For most of our history, these stories have stood in need of continuing – often radical – correction.
Our social universe operates least like a scientific model. Justice is ever a work in progress. We say the arc of the universe bends toward justice, and when we say that we mean the social universe, not the physical. And the social universe doesn’t bend that way by itself. A small group of thoughtful, committed citizens needs to get up and do the bending. And the weight of the whole society must come down on it if it is to stay bent. So that small group needs to learn to persuade and to admonish effectively. That’s how it works. We know this from history and from experience. Progress is not inevitable. We can’t just turn a crank and expect it to tumble out. It depends upon human conscience and human freedom.
This understanding of conscience and justice-making is at the core of our tradition. Unitarianism always arose in places where Calvinism got established. Calvin thought that God had everything worked out from the beginning, and the universe unfolds according to “His” plan. God not only told the future, but there was no need to worry about whether the cage is just so on top of the pole: if the mouse was meant to be caught, it’ll be caught. If you believe that, then what’s your motivation to follow your own conscience? Or that of a thoughtful, committed small group? How would you know if your effort to bend the arc of the social universe was part of God’s plan? And given the harsh brand of tough love Calvin’s God administered, wouldn’t you be afraid to find out? Unitarians were people who just didn’t think that was good theology, or good religion. Our forebears looked to the Hebrew prophets, and reflected on what it meant to listen to the voice of conscience, that voice still and small deep inside that we might describe as a call to justice or an inspiration to love.
The painter, John Singer Sargent, captured the Hebrew idea of a prophet in symbols, in his mural for the Boston Public Library, called “Frieze of the Prophets.” I have given you some pictures of it on the insert in your Order of Worship.
The Israelites Oppressed. Legend (from Psalm 106, KJV): “21 They forgat God their saviour, which had done great things in Egypt; …36 And they served their idols: which were a snare unto them. 37 Yea, they sacrificed their sons and their daughters unto devils, 38 And shed innocent blood, even the blood of their sons and of their daughters, … unto the idols of Canaan … 40 Therefore was the wrath of the Lord kindled against his people, … 41 And he gave them into the hand of the heathen; and they that hated them ruled over them. 42 Their enemies also oppressed them, and they were brought into subjection under their hand. … 44 Nevertheless he regarded their affliction, when he heard their cry: 45 And he remembered for them his covenant …”
Amos, Nahum, Ezekiel, Daniel, Elijah, Moses, Joshua, Jeremiah, Jonah, Isaiah, Habakkuk
Zephaniah, Joel, Obadiah, Hosea
Micah, Haggai, Malachi, Zechariah
At one end of the Sargent Room is a mural depicting various prophets named in the scriptures – eleven in the central panel, with four more on each side wrapping around the adjacent walls, for a total of 19. On your insert I underlined the names of those known traditionally as the “major prophets,” and put a dotted underline under the names of those called the “minor prophets.” These are prophets whose prophecies are contained in a book with their name on it – the “major prophets” have big books, the “minor prophets” have shorter books. As you see, four of the figures do not have books named after them, and there are still more figures in the Hebrew scriptures – Deborah, for example – who are called prophets but whom Sargent did not include here. In a half circle above the main panel, Sargent puts the Hebrew prophets and their role in context. The social universe of Israel kept falling apart. People with power and privilege got lazy, or got invested in false convictions, or got set in their ways and insensitive to the suffering of the innocent and powerless. Tyrants from home or abroad took over and increased the people’s suffering, because that small group at the top had been neither thoughtful nor committed. And then God remembered the covenant and got back in right relationship with the people. The prophets spoke, and the people agitated, and the oppressors were humbled or overthrown. That’s the story, the pattern of the prophets in Hebrew scripture.
And look at these 19 fellows – even within the white male selection Sargent has made, they are a diverse crowd. Look at the variety of their poses, representing the variety of their messages. Each faced different times, a different configuration of power and privilege and oppression, a different constellation of suffering, and different imperatives – but one inspiration of conscience. That’s what it means, I think, to be a community of prophecy.
In these times, may we be among ourselves such a community, and may we join with our neighbors in a community of prophecy in New Orleans and beyond, thoughtfully committing ourselves to bend the arc of our social universe toward justice, uniting in skillful communication –speaking and listening to one another in love – to learn which way it needs to bend, and speaking truth to power in order to commence the bending. Amen?